Along with its unique Indigenous culture, any visit to Uluru is about views, views and more views. And the best vantage points to appreciate the Rock are in the cooler desert dawns and dusks from a suitable distance, never on or atop it. Yet curiously, glimpses of the monolith are in rather short supply within Ayers Rock Resort proper, except from the recently refurbished 218-room Desert Gardens hotel. In this respect it even upstages the ritzy, five-star Sails in the Desert at the other end of the resort, or Yulara (postcode 0872), as it's officially designated in the Territory.
Ayers Rock Resort, and Deserts Gardens itself, is about 20 kilometres from Uluru and a three or so-hour flight from Sydney and Melbourne. Qantas has recently launched direct flights from Sydney to Ayers Rock Airport (also called Connellan Airport) a mere 10-minute drive from Desert Gardens.
It may seem a bit "Besser Block-chic" but Desert Gardens, as the name suggests, is beautifully enveloped within an arid forest of native shrubs and wildflowers (free guided walks of the gardens are available to guests) and some of the pricier rooms offer coveted views of the Rock. It's hard to believe that the Philip Cox-designed Ayers Rock Resort, also known as the township of Yulara, is almost 40 years old. Even harder to conceive is how such an environmentally and culturally-sensitive, low-level design could have possibly been achieved so long ago when nationally environmental ignorance still exists. No wonder Cox's design, specifically Sails in the Desert with its billowing shade cloth, won a coveted "enduring architecture" award a few years ago.
My spacious, second-storey "deluxe rock view room", with balcony and newly-laid carpet with a design inspired by dappled light under a tree canopy, is attractive and comfortable. But the room does feel more like being the beneficiary of a spruce-up rather than a complete refurbishment, particularly in respect to the bathroom. A few more thoughtful touches (such as proper, not instant, coffee), would be welcome. But with such an incredible choice of experiences at Uluru - far too many to detail here - you'd have to have rocks (make that a Rock) in your head to spend an excess of time in your bolthole.
The resort's remote location doesn't at all inhibit its ability and determination to keep its guests extremely well-fed and watered. The main restaurant at Desert Gardens is the newly and attractively renovated, al a carte Arnguli, which is the local Pitjantjatjara word for bush plum. Overlooking the central swimming pool, framed by two magnificent towering ghost gums, Arnguli's menu is appropriately infused with bush tucker flavours. Right next door is the more casual and equally well-designed Mangata (meaning: "desert quandong"), looking out onto the native greenery of an outdoor terrace. It's open for breakfast and all-day dining with a lounge area in front of the entrance. Sails in the Desert who?
The top tucker theme at Uluru continues apace at Tali Wiru (meaning "beautiful dune"), the resort's premier outdoor dining experience which takes place under the stars following sunset canapes and panoramas of both the Rock and the equally remarkable Kata Tjuta (formerly the Olgas) at an elevated site outside the boundaries of Yulara. The accomplished dishes on the four-course menu, served by a mostly Indigenous crew, are infused with native herbs and spices. Back in town, don't miss Yulara's newest pride and joy, the Gallery of Central Australia (GOCA), featuring stellar Indigenous art, which is all for sale. The works are drawn from the surrounding desert communities. The resort's Town Square, which includes an information centre and cafes (one of which, Kulata, doubles as a venue for Indigenous hospitality trainees) is within an easy walk from Desert Gardens or jump on the free shuttle bus.
Your reviewer was up in pitch darkness the two mornings of his visit in order to absorb stupendous sunrises. But that in-room view of Uluru, when you do get the chance to properly enjoy it, is a true bonus of any visit to this definitive Australian destination, particularly as the cooler months approach and before the international tourists return in numbers.
Garden view rooms, which can sleep up to four people, from $400 a night with a minimum two-night stay. Ayers Rock Resort, Yulara, Northern Territory. Ph: 1300 134 044. See ayersrockresort.com.au
Did we mention the views?
Consider staying an extra night or three for a well-deserved sleep-in. This place sure does rise early and we mean early.
OUR RATING OUT OF FIVE
Anthony Dennis visited as a guest of Voyages Ayers Rock Resort.